Archbishop Romero was the voice of the voiceless poor. A life lived out in El Salvador, a Catholic country named after Christ the Saviour. A marksman’s bullet killed him in the middle of mass on March 24, 1980. No one was ever prosecuted.
There was disbelief and despair across the land but especially in the poor communities amongst the simple rural folk and city dwellers he had loved so dearly, defended so courageously and for whom in the end he gave his life.
Archbishop Romero is increasingly recognised as a model Christian, a pastor and a bishop – a saint for the 21st century. In his ministry in San Salvador he enfleshed or ‘made incarnate’ the option for the poor. He is a tremendous inspiration to the livesimply movement. He strengthens our faith, fills us with hope and makes us proud to be justice-seeking Christian pilgrims. Today Romero stands tall as a truly credible witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ for these sceptical times.
During three dramatic years as archbishop, Romero became visible to the wider world through his legendary preaching to a nation engulfed in explosive tensions and violence. In a country wracked with human rights abuses, enveloped in lies and cover-up and edging every day closer to civil war, Archbishop Romero fearlessly spoke the truth. He listened to the poor tell their stories. He took on the wealthy landowners for their exploitation of seasonal workers. He took on the military for their torture, killings and terrorisation of the rural population. This brought down persecution on the Church and six priests and dozens of catechists were killed prior to his own assassination.
Parallels have been drawn between Romero’s three years as archbishop and the three years of the public life of Jesus. The preaching, the teaching, the prayer and solitude. The closeness to the poor, the tender love of the vulnerable and destitute, the courage and resolution, the insults hurled, the pharisaic plotting against him, the doubts and the fears, the death threats and the public execution.
In 1977 there was a Gethsemane experience for Romero. As he prayed beside the body of the murdered priest, Rutilio Grande, he realised that if he were to follow this through to its final consequences it would, as he wrote, “put me on the road to Calvary”. And he assented; he made a fundamental option for the poor and it took him to his martyrdom.
Romero was once asked to explain that strange phrase, ‘option for the poor’. He replied: “I offer you this by way of example. A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.”
Rutilio Grande was the first priest to be killed. There were national shock waves. For Romero, Rutilio’s death was the divine catalyst. He now began to see the situation from the perspective of the victims. This option for the poor would be the locus from which henceforward he would pray and judge the suffering reality of El Salvador, the place where he would ‘do’ his theology and live a spirituality which recognised Christ, the suffering servant, the pierced one, there amongst the poor campesinos.
Romero’s initial disbelief at Rutilio’s killing became prophetic determination. He suspended all participation in official government ceremonies until the assassins were brought to justice. He opened a diocesan legal aid office to document the killings and disappearances and to give pastoral support to the families and communities affected. Crucially, the following Sunday, he decreed that all churches of the diocese be closed and the masses cancelled. He summoned priests and people to a single Mass in front of the Cathedral where he preached to a crowd of over 100,000.
Romero’s weekly homilies were occasions to interweave catechesis and communication of the social reality. He carefully unpacked the readings and interpreted them in the context of El Salvador. Then came the good news of the week – the meetings in the communities, the celebrations and patronal feasts, the visitors and letters of solidarity. Then the bad news. Incident by incident, atrocity by atrocity, he named the victims; he said what had happened, where and when and indicated those responsible. He sought justice, supported recompense and offered pastoral care. This methodology was the forerunner of truth commissions that later emerged around the world. His sermons could last over an hour but were heard with rapt attention – the only interruption to the flow being applause.
Romero constantly referred to the three idolatries of the time – idolatry of wealth and land; idolatry of power and national security and on the left the idolatry of the party organisation. They were false gods that demanded human victims. But Romero always used the moment for a call to repent, an invitation to a change of heart. “Brothers and sisters,” he said, “keep this treasure. It is not my poor words that sow hope and faith. I am no more than the humble echo of God in his people.” His messages were ‘no’ to the killings of the right; ‘no’ to the violence of the left; ‘yes’ to political organisation; ‘yes’ to dialogue; social justice for the poor; human rights for all Salvadorans; and ‘yes’ to the practice of compassion.
They said he was naïve and Marxist-manipulated. As war came closer the threats and insults increased. Fake newspapers appeared with outrageous headlines attempting to link Romero with terrorists. A suitcase of dynamite placed behind the altar for his Sunday mass failed to go off.
Romero spoke about his death and those around him tried to persuade him to have protection or a bodyguard. His response was simple: “Why should the shepherd have protection when his sheep are still prey to wolves?” The threats became so intense; a fever existed. Romero knew he was going to die. He accepted it with great equanimity. He prepared himself and went like a lamb to the slaughter.
Following his assassination the war became unstoppable and during twelve years claimed over 70,000 lives.
What should remembering Archbishop Romero mean today? From a Christian point of view ‘remembering’ means something active. The fundamental Christian model is ‘Do this in memory of me’. For the Church to remember Archbishop Romero must first mean to continue his work and imitate that option for the poor which he embraced and his life and ministry epitomised. And like him to struggle with the paradoxes and conflicts that such commitment throws up for us.
Romero was a deeply spiritual man with a rich prayer life from which he drew his strength. His lifestyle was simple and austere. His example to us is the beautiful, and dare one say it, the seamless synthesis he made in living and witnessing to faith and promoting social justice. He was neither a political activist disguised in episcopal robes nor an opportunistic priest peddling a populist social project.
Romero was the enemy of cover-up and spin. He spoke the truth fearlessly, prophetically. There are too many ‘Nicodemus Christians’ today afraid to speak the truth in public about contemporary controversies that affect the Church and the world. Archbishop Romero was certainly no ‘Nicodemus Christian’; he was an evangeliser for all seasons.
He became a generator of communion and solidarity. He was utterly orthodox and utterly radical. He truly loved God and he truly loved his neighbour, the poor. He loved God in the poor, to the point of martyrdom. Oscar Romero is an icon of the option for the poor.
Photo 1: Oscar Romero [Photo credit: Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation]
Photo 2: Archbishop Oscar Romero greets local children. [Photo credit: Octavio Duran/Cafod]